By Daniel J. Hoag

The 83rd Academy Awards are upon us, so take a look at these five ace actresses competing for gold in the Haiku Review’s Oscar Spotlight focusing on the category of Best Actress in a Leading Role.

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
For her fourth Oscar nomination, Annette Bening brought the proverbial thunder as Nic, the hard-working, hard-drinking head-of-house at the center of this domestic dramedy.  Already dealing with marital friction as a result of her wife’s decidedly unfocused career ambitions, Nic’s life is thrown into further disarray when her two children seek out their sperm-donor father and introduce him into their family life.  Distrust, jealousy, and unfaithfulness soon follow, forcing Nic to rescue herself from an emotional breakdown and put her family back together.  Bening plays her rollercoaster range of emotions with ease, winning over audiences and Oscar voters alike.  In a film full of great performances, Bening blows them all out of the water.

Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
As Becca Corbett, a woman whose life has been destroyed after the accidental death of her young son, Nicole Kidman turns hopelessness and misery into something of a symphony.  It’s to her credit that Kidman manages to make such weighty material eminently watchable, tempering moments of sheer desperation with elements of quiet beauty.  And despite the Oscar she already has for The Hours, it’s highly possible that Rabbit Hole may just be her finest performance to date.

Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
It doesn’t take more than a few minutes of watching Winter’s Bone to figure out that Jennifer Lawrence deserves her Oscar nomination.  She plays Ree, a teenager living deep in the Ozark wilderness, impoverished and struggling to feed her two younger siblings while caring for her mentally disturbed mother.  Her mostly absent father is out on bail, and when he doesn’t turn up for his court appointment, the sheriff warns Ree that their house was placed as collateral and they’ll lose it if he doesn’t return promptly.  Determined not to let her siblings become homeless, Ree sets out to find him, confronting hostile neighbors and untrustworthy family members, many of whom are determined to protect a widespread criminal underbelly.  Watching Ree try to hold her family together, you’ll feel like she’s been doing it for several lifetimes; watching the 20-year-old Lawrence act, you’ll think the same thing.

Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Natalie Portman has been electrifying audiences ever since her performance as Mathilda, the 12-year-old girl under the care of an assassin, in 1994’s The Professional.  Since then, she’s starred in a wide range of films, from beloved indies (Garden State) to major franchises (the Star Wars prequels).  But with Black Swan, Portman finally gets a movie that is undeniably, unequivocally hers.  As Nina Sayers, the obsessive prima ballerina striving for perfection as the star of her company’s production of Swan Lake, Portman owns every second of the film, and audiences are hung on her every emotional turn.  She makes psychological breakdowns look effortless (and thanks to a well-publicized onscreen kissfest with her costar Mila Kunis, she makes them look sexy as well).  Nina Sayers may or may not have achieved perfection, but Natalie Portman sure did.

Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
In the heartbreaking break-up film Blue Valentine, Michelle Williams plays Cindy, and we watch helplessly as she falls in and out of love with Dean, played by the should-have-been-nominated Ryan Gosling.  Together, these two make love and war, and it’s one of the grittiest, most realist portrayals of marital crumbling you’re likely to ever see put to film.  Williams gives such a lived-in performance of a woman at two distinct periods of life: reckless college girl, trapped in an unhealthy relationship, vulnerable to the charms of a ruggedly handsome stranger; and later, wife and mother, beleaguered by the strains of child-rearing and a husband who hasn’t quite matured or discovered any sort of ambition for his life.  Cindy may have fallen out of love, but our love for Williams will never die.

Who deserves to win?  While Annette Bening’s performance is more than all right, it’s Natalie Portman who deserves to dance off with the gold.